First Sunday in Advent (3 December)

On this first Sunday of Advent, as the Church begins its telling of the Christian story once again, our Gospel reading turns our attention to the last things. The passage (Mark 13: 24–37), which is a portion of what is often called ‘the little apocalypse’, puts us in the presence of the adult Jesus offering both prophetic judgment and prophetic comfort. What sounds like a disaster, however, prepares the way for the ‘Son of Man’ and his gathering of the elect. It can seem strange, at first, to begin our anticipation of the birth of Jesus by being exhorted to wait for his second coming. After all, this talk of Jesus’ return seems out of sequence because, in the context of the liturgical year, we are still awaiting his birth. In one important aspect, however, it is entirely fitting, because it places us squarely with those who awaited the birth of the Messiah. Neither those who awaited the first coming of the Messiah, nor those who now await his return, know when he will appear. In other respects, our contemporary anticipation of the coming of God’s Promised One at Christmas is quite different from the experience of those who awaited the Messiah. After all, we know whom we are waiting for. We know the day he will arrive. We have Advent calendars and Advent candles to help us count down to the promised day. By contrast, of course, those who lived before the birth of Jesus did not know the day or the hour of his arrival, so they needed to live in a continual state of watchfulness. By anticipating the return of the Son of Man here, at the beginning of Advent, we wait in the same way those who lived before Jesus was born waited, not knowing the day or the hour when the Messiah would appear. We also join them in hearing – and needing – the same exhortation to be watchful and to keep awake. Amidst the holiday parties and late-night shopping trips, the Gospel reminds us to be awake to God in the world. This is a way of being awake that might actually be restful and bring us peace.